How People Learn, Part 1

Hosted by: Kellie Ferguson

How people learn is a multifaceted process. In this Part 1 of this two part episode, we will discuss some of the ways that people learn, absorb, and retain new information.

download this episode’s infographic

Hi this is Kellie Ferguson, Instructional Designer with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning with another episode of the Cerebro Series.  Today we’ll be talking about How People Learn—the first of a two-part series on How People Learn. 

Perhaps you, like me, have thought that there are a set number of styles that learning abilities can be categorized within. Maybe you thought that writing things down was something that helped your students learn, or seeing visual representations of information has helped you to retain information in the past. While the strategies that students develop to study and review materials can be more easily classified into categories like being a visual or auditory learner, learning new information is actually a little bit different and a bit less structured.  

So, let’s talk about this: How do people learn? 

The first point to understand in learning is the difference between working and long-term memory. In order for students to actually absorb information and learn, incoming information has to be processed by their working memory and, more importantly, transferred to their long-term memory where they can store and later retrieve the information. Working memory holds information temporarily. It processes new information and gives the brain the opportunity to make connections. Long term memory, on the other hand, is much more permanent. Because long term memory holds information, it can also be recalled, oftentimes years later. When helping students learn and understand a new concept, the goal is to get new information from working memory to long term memory. Once in long term memory, information then becomes a foundational part of how people experience and understand their life.  

Another point to understand is that the mindset we have when we approach learning new information also plays a big part in how we learn. If you have a fixed mindset towards learning, this means that you think your intelligence, skills, and talents are innate, and you either were born with them or you just don’t have them. When you have a fixed mindset about learning, you won’t be open to developing from your mistakes—if you fail, you fail. A growth mindset, on the other hand, means you think your intelligence, learning, and skills can be developed over time. When someone has a growth mindset towards learning, they are more willing to fail in the beginning because they know that, with practice, they will learn more and get better at something. Clearly, a growth mindset has a more positive impact on learning and should therefore be the underlying mindset for classroom activities. 

Thinking about how one thinks and learns is an important part of retaining new information. This is called metacognition. Metacognition in the classroom means that students should be aware of their thought processes when it comes to learning. Essentially, reflecting on how they are learning, what they have learned, and how much they understand can help students learn. Practicing metacognition in the classroom helps students retain information because it helps them see the gap between simply recognizing a topic and actually understanding it.  

Additionally, try to understand that everyone learns new information on top of a background of prior knowledge and skills, and new information that they receive should build upon this. When learners can relate new knowledge to previous knowledge, they are more likely to retain information and develop deeper cognitive processes.  

Community is another important part of learning. People learn better when they are working within learning communities. Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed this theory, suggesting that “observation and modeling play a primary role in this learning process.” This means that seeing the behavior of others and acting out certain behaviors have a big impact on how people learn. 

There are three concepts central to Bandura’s idea of social learning:  

  1. People learn through observation 
  1. Mental states and intrinsic motivation, or being motivated by internal factors, are important to learning 
  1. Learning does not always cause a behavioral change, or is not always outwardly obvious 

Learning new information, therefore, sticks better when students work together to learn from each other and share their knowledge.  

After learning a new concept, it is more likely to stick if students are given an opportunity to apply that knowledge. Application of knowledge can help students make connections between information on their own, thus moving information from working memory, where it is temporary, to long-term memory, where it is much more permanent.  

And finally, when students can see the relevance of information to their lives, they are more likely to classify that information as important and meaningful. So, if a student is given the opportunity to put their learning into practice, either in real life scenarios or in a variety of different contexts, it is more likely to become a part of their long term memory. 

Understanding how people absorb new information can help you, as an instructor, to develop practices in your class designed to better enable student learning and retention of new information. In our next episode, Part 2 of How People Learn, we will explore some techniques designed to facilitate learning in the classroom.

Thanks for joining me, Kellie Ferguson, as I explored how people learn. Be sure to check out another insightful tidbit at The Cerebro Series.  Until next time, keep those brain juices flowing.